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BEIJING 2008 : BILL PLASCHKE

Kobe the cold superstar catches an Olympic chill

August 10, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

BEIJING BEIJING — His giant arms have embraced championships, punched defeats, clutched stardom, shoved frustration, been marked with every sort of tattoo and twist and tear.

Yet marching into National Stadium for the Olympic opening ceremony Friday, Kobe Bryant looked down and saw something new.

Goose bumps.

"First time ever," he said.

And for his next act, the coldblooded superstar has become a bouncy public patriot, wearing his flag the way he once wore his glare.

Kobe Bryant with goose bumps is like the Great Wall with graffiti, but it works.

Red, white and human, he has never looked better.

"This has a greater significance than anything I've ever been part of," he said at the U.S. Olympic basketball team's practice Saturday, his voice strangely familiar.

Oh, yeah. This was the Kobe Bryant from a dozen years ago, before he disappeared under the drama.

He's grateful. He's humble. He's awed. After a difficult June featuring a lost NBA championship and an embarrassing Shaquille O'Neal rap video, he's that kid again.

Entering today's nutty Olympic opener against host China -- "It will be the highest-energy game I've ever been part of," he said -- Bryant has decided there's something bigger than Lakerland.

It's, you know, our land.

And to Lakers fans who are angry when he said bringing home a gold medal is bigger than winning an NBA championship, well, he has a message.

"So what?" he said. "If they don't understand this, they don't know what they're talking about. It's simple. You're playing for your country!"

I agree with him, and if you were here, you might agree with him too.

As the Olympic rookie Bryant marched in with hundreds of U.S. athletes Friday, the loner leader was suddenly a small part of something huge, just another tall guy at the back of the line. But then once he was recognized, he was cheered wildly by Chinese fans while other fans chanted, "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

"That's the first time I'd ever heard those 'USA' chants in person, and it was the most amazing thing ever," Bryant said. "Nobody in L.A. wants to win for the Lakers more than me, everybody knows it. But this is something totally different."

The significance isn't in the minutes (he'll probably play only about half of each game) or the numbers (he'll share any big stats with LeBron James or Dwyane Wade).

This significance is in redemption for his country and renewal of his sport.

This is about showing that the U.S. is still the world's preeminent basketball power because the U.S. has not forgotten the right way to play basketball.

Bryant's greatest moment on a basketball court involves the tenets of teamwork and unselfishness?

That would be as unexpectedly cool as last season's MVP award, with one difference.

The glow from the trophy lasted only long enough for the Boston Celtics to throw a Garnett blanket over it. The shine of this gold medal would last forever.

"I've never been part of something this big before," Bryant said.

And what if you don't succeed?

"If we don't win the gold medal, I might not be a U.S. citizen anymore," he said. "Carmelo [Anthony] would be Puerto Rican, LeBron would be Russian, and I'll be Italian, just call me Antonio."

He laughed. He laughs a lot these days. Even at things that might bug him back home, he laughs.

A Chinese reporter, working for what appeared to be some sort of college newspaper, asked him to read the Mandarin name of a website into an ancient camcorder, and he complied, again and again, until he got it right.

"Obviously, there is an added sense of responsibility because you have USA across your chest," he said.

He caused a bit of a stir recently when he said he would sign with an overseas professional team if the money was good enough.

And on Saturday, he kept that theory alive, answering "yes" when asked if he would test the growing overseas market before signing any new Lakers contract.

"Free agency is becoming a global thing," he said. "The market has opened up; now we'll see how the league responds to it."

But then, when asked if he could leave the NBA before winning a championship as the team's sole leader -- without O'Neal -- he shook his head.

"It would be almost impossible," he said. "But it is what it is."

It sounded as if Bryant was just looking for contract leverage, it didn't sound as if he was really serious about leaving, and right now it doesn't matter anyway.

For the next couple of weeks, he won't be a Laker; he'll be an American, and he wears it as well as he has worn anything.

"We don't want people to have the wrong impression, that we are selfish and can't play team basketball," he said. "We have to change the way people look at us."

In doing so, he has a chance to change the way people look at him, spreading his gift, sharing those goose bumps.

--

ill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@ latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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